Summary

The chapter begins with Ashima, alone in the house on Pemberton Road, addressing Christmas cards. She is 48. The family is scattered across the US. The narrator, speaking from Ashima’s thoughts, notes that she is learning to appreciate her solitude, especially her part-time work at the public library, which has introduced her to middle-aged women in the neighborhood. Ashima enjoys Ashoke’s visits, occurring every three weeks, and although Ashima has learned to do more things around the house, Ashoke still handles the bills and manages the yard-work. Ashoke calls that night, interrupting her daydreams, and says he has checked into the hospital near Cleveland. But he tells Ashima not to worry: it’s only an upset stomach, and he will be discharged soon. Ashima is concerned for her husband’s welfare but, believing his illness to be minor, she returns to her Christmas cards.

Several hours pass. Ashima calls Ashoke’s apartment in Cleveland and gets no response. She starts to worry about her husband’s health. She calls the hospital near Cleveland and is placed on hold; when she finally hears a voice on the other end, she explains she has been waiting for her husband, who checked in recently with a stomach ailment. The hospital official tells Ashima they have been trying to reach her directly, and that Ashoke has died in the hospital, of a heart attack. The administrator uses the word “expired,” which Ashima’s associates not with death but with the library books she handles at her job. She hangs up, in shock.

Gogol learns of his father’s passing after a night out with Maxine. He flies alone to Cleveland to take care of his father’s belongings. Although Maxine offers to accompany him, Gogol declines. Gogol takes a taxi to the hospital and briefly identifies his father’s body. He drives his father’s leased car to the apartment complex where he has been living, a temporary “bachelor,” while teaching at the college in Ohio. Gogol cleans the apartment and, on his mother’s orders, throws away everything his father owned in the small lodgings. Ashima tells Gogol that keeping the belongings of the dead is “not the way” Bengalis handle mourning. After cleaning, Gogol talks to Maxine on the phone, and though she urges him to stay away from the apartment, in a hotel, for the night, Nikhil instead lies on the couch and sleeps fitfully till morning. On the flight back to New York, the next day, Gogol remembers Ashoke shaving his head when his own father passed away. Although Gogol did not understand this behavior at the time, he has a better sense now of what it means to mourn one’s father.

Gogol returns to the Boston suburbs and observes a period of family mourning with Sonia and Ashima (and without Maxine). After the ten days, during which they eat plain meals and avoid all other company, Ashima holds a gathering to celebrate Ashoke’s life, in keeping with Bengali tradition. Family friends arrive at Pemberton Road. Maxine, too, joins the party, although she is concerned for Gogol’s welfare and surprised he does not wish to “escape” the demands of the family’s mourning rituals. Maxine asks if Gogol still plans to come to New Hampshire with the Ratliffs for the New Year, and Gogol declines, saying that he wishes to stay with his mother and sister.

Ashima, in the weeks that follow, takes care of logistical details related to her husband’s life, and realizes that his time away, in Cleveland, has enabled her to get a head-start on managing her own affairs. Sonia decides to remain in the Boston area permanently, instead of returning to California. Gogol takes the Amtrak down to Penn Station, where Maxine will be waiting for him, although he has mixed feelings about seeing her again, and entering back into their comfortable life in the Ratliff household. Gogol, on the train, has a daydream about a trip he and his father took, out onto a spit of land on Cape Cod. On that day, Ashoke asked Gogol to remember their walk forever—to remember that they went together to the edge of the continent.

Analysis

Chapter 7 represents a period of intense transition for the members of the Ganguli family. Of course, most radical is Ashoke’s unexpected death, which echoes the similarly unexpected passing of Ashima’s father in Chapter 2. Gogol did not really want to come home to see his mother and father earlier that summer, before Ashoke left for Ohio. In fact, Gogol was more than happy to feel that the Ratliffs were his surrogate family in New Hampshire. But, after Ashoke’s passing, Gogol becomes acutely aware of his family’s presence in Boston—of his mother’s grief, and of his obligations as a son.

For Gogol, these obligations take the form of Bengali traditions. The traditions do not, perhaps, mean so much to him in themselves—it is not that, overnight, Gogol becomes an observant and faithful practitioner of Bengali religious rites. But the ceremonial aspects of his father’s mourning period are important to him. They remind him of the family gatherings the Gangulis have held in the past, and of the links his family shares with other families in the area, and with their blood relations in Calcutta. Ashoke’s passing thus has the effect of binding Gogol more closely with the surviving members of his immediate family.

This binding, however, leaves Maxine out. She tries quite hard to remain close to Gogol and to respect his family’s traditions. Although Maxine does not always understand the ceremonies in which Gogol and his family takes part, she does her best to talk to Gogol in his grief, and to look out for his wellbeing as she might imagine her own, in similar circumstances. But this is precisely the problem. For Gogol realizes that the Ratliffs are fundamentally a different family from the Gangulis. They observe different social codes, different traditions. And for Gogol, mourning is not something to be done alone, in comfort. It is instead a public act of grieving, done close to one’s blood relations. Maxine, despite knowing Gogol well and loving him, is not one of those blood relations.

Some of the simplest acts, following Ashoke’s death, take on symbolic significance for Gogol and the family. He does not travel to Ohio simply because it is his duty, as Ashoke’s only son; he does so because he wants to feel close to his father, to learn more about his solitary life there. Gogol realizes, only after his father is gone, how little of his father he knew, or what his father chose to reveal to him over time. Ashoke is a private character, but an emotional one; a man of feelings who nevertheless did not share those feelings directly with his own family members. Gogol is not entirely dissimilar to his father, in this way. He can be emotionally distant, especially with Maxine, and especially as he is going through mourning. Gogol wants to learn the details of his father’s life in Ohio as a way of better understanding the man himself.

Many of the novel’s broader themes return in this chapter, and take on new meanings. The cycle of birth and death turns once again. Ashoke passes on, just as his father and Ashima’s father did. And we see these deaths not through the original, “immigrant” generation’s eyes, but through Gogol’s—those of a young man who has assimilated into American society, who is pursuing his own professional path in New York City. The notion of “in-groups” and “out-groups” also returns. For Maxine, despite her best efforts, cannot know a part of Gogol’s world, especially the part that becomes present during periods of mourning—a complex set of social rituals to be observed by direct family members only.

Finally, the idea of solitude and human bonds reemerges. Ashima, perhaps more than her husband, has felt cut off from family in Calcutta, after the move to the United States. But here, during Ashoke’s funeral services, Ashima, Sonia, and Gogol are surrounded by a surrogate family of Bengalis, many of whom have known Ashoke for years. This surrogate family helps Ashima to transition to a new life, without Ashoke by her side. As Ashima has noted, this transition was already in place after Ashoke’s move to Cleveland, which was to be only temporary, but which became permanent after his death.